Campaign to decriminalise abortion in Africa

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has launched a continental campaign for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Africa. The campaign aims to bring attention to unsafe abortion which poses a serious threat to women’s and girls’ lives and their rights to sexual and reproductive health. The ACHPR emphasises that this campaign is in line with existing international and regional commitments made several years ago, including the Resolution on the Health and Reproductive Rights of Women in Africa, 2007 and its communiqué on accountability for women’s reproductive health in March 2015 in Nairobi.

Commissioner Lucy Asuagbor, speaking at the launch of the campaign in January 2016 said that it was informed by the reality that unsafe abortion is a gross violation of human rights that constitutes a serious public health concern. ‘Millions of girls and women in Africa are dying from consequences of unsafe abortion. Countless others are sustaining serious injuries and disabilities.’

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortion is one of the largest contributors to maternal mortality and morbidity in Africa, accounting for up to 30% of maternal deaths in many sub-Saharan countries. The WHO estimates that more than 40 million abortions occurred worldwide in 2008 - of which 22 million were unsafe abortions. More than 6 million unsafe abortions occur annually in Africa, resulting in 29,000 deaths every year for poor, mostly rural based African women and girls under the age 25.

Globally, nations have passed declarations committing to SRHR, including: International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994; the 1995 Beijing Plan of Action and the ICPD+5 reaffirmation of Cairo promises which stated that countries MUST provide abortion services when not against the law. UN Treaty monitoring bodies have also reaffirmed the right to access safe legal abortion and called for states not to criminalise abortion in their domestic laws. At the regional level the Maputo Protocol in 2003 enshrined access to safe abortion as a right of all African women.

The ACHPR said that despite these commitments, deaths occur partly because of laws that criminalise abortion on the presumption that the threat of arrest or imprisonment will prevent women and girls from having abortions. On the contrary, Ms Asuagbor said: ‘Restrictive laws do not prevent women from seeking abortions: they only make them unsafe.’

The ACHPR is committed to bringing States into compliance with their commitments under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol); the Maputo Plan of Action; and the Campaign for the Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA). To that end it called on Heads of State and Government to demonstrate their commitment to preserving the lives of African women and girls by decriminalising abortion in their respective countries.

The gap between law and reality reflects the spectrum of cultural, religious, ethical, political, economic and practical barriers to protecting the lives and rights of women and girls. Views are highly polarised and for the campaign to succeed in saving lives, preventing disabilities and reducing the demand for abortion, access to reliable and up to date information is critical. It is also important that the voices of women who have experienced, or been denied, abortions, and of the healthcare providers who perform them are heard. An animated film In their Own Words: Experiences of Women Denied Abortions by ANSIRH portrays the barriers to legal abortion access in six countries.

There are many resources available on this site providing facts and arguments about safe abortion. For example, Facts on Abortion in Africa; Advocating Access for Abortion Access: Eleven Country Studies; Unsafe abortion: The Preventable Pandemic; High Profile Facilities can add to your trouble: women, stigma and unsafe abortion in Kenya.

The Regional Team for SRHR from the Embassy of Sweden
, Lusaka, is compiling a Database of Organisations Supporting Safe and Legal Abortion in Africa. You can access the database and submit additions to it here.

It is also important to engage in open debate about the issues, to separate fact from myth and to understand the consequences of policies and positions. See the SRA Blog on abortion and share your views and experiences in the Network discussion forum.